I Spy With My Little Eyes… A Perfect Supervisor

Is there an algorithm for choosing a supervisor?

If the gods of academia work in my favour, this time next year I, will be a postdoctoral research fellow. While searching for potential postdoc positions, a thought crossed my mind: ‘Could there be an existing algorithm on how to choose a perfect supervisor?’. I then went on a quest to find this hidden treasure, a journal with steps, perhaps a machine learning algorithm that spews out ones’ ideal mentor. To my despair, this journal was non-existent.

However, not all hope is lost because I did discover numerous articles with guidelines on how to choose a supervisor. These guidelines, combined with my personal experience, will surely assist you in your pursuit of a good supervisor. The guidelines outline the best-case scenario where you, as a student, have the power to choose your ideal institution and supervisor. Unfortunately, in some cases, due to funding restrictions or structured study programmes, the student does not have the freedom to choose a supervisor but is allocated one. In the latter instance, one just has to appease the academic gods and hope that they are paired with a good supervisor.

As always, a good starting point is being self-aware. Before pursuing the postgraduate journey, it is essential that you know your working style, work ethics, strengths and weaknesses, hence performing some type of personal SWOT analysis is a good starting point. For example, I knew that I was not a proactive student; therefore, I needed a supervisor with strict working rules. My MSc supervisor had set weekly update meetings, this kept me on my toes and hence worked in my favour compared to a relaxed approach. Doing the personal SWOT analysis will help you find a supervisor who complements your weaknesses and pushes you to be a better researcher. An important aspect of self-reflection is having a bigger picture of the research field you want to pursue. Take note of the broad research field that interests you, then create a list of potential topics that you want to work in.

Once you have a list of topics that interest you, you can now begin to search for a supervisor candidate. An article by the editor of the Prospects website details the steps of actively searching for a potential supervisor. This article indicates that one should start with searching for the most cited papers, published blogs, and recently submitted PhD dissertations in your area of interest. If you are inclined to the social engagement aspect, you should also search for researchers who also do some level of outreach activities. Once you have conducted this search, you should reduce your list to realistic potential researchers. For example, if you have no interest in moving abroad, then all the candidates from other countries should be removed from your list.

Next would be a background check on the list of potential researchers. Although sometimes it is not feasible, a background check is essential, especially for female students (unfortunately, not all researchers have good intentions). One can approach previous students supervised by your potential advisor to understand the type of person they are and their work ethics. Of course, the information will be biased based now the kind of relationship the student had with the advisor. However, if multiple students mention the same thing, especially if it’s sexual misconduct, then you might have to consider removing that person from your list.

An article by the Academic Positions websites clearly outlines how one can then approach the potential supervisors. In summary, you must send an email detailing your research interests, the reasons you would like them to be your supervisor, and ask for a face to face meeting (either personally or virtually) to further discuss the project you are interested in. This email should also include your revamped CV. Once you have made contact, the next phases are out of your control; you can only hope for the best outcome. If the first meeting does take place, make a list of concise questions to ask that will help you in your final decision making. These are the questions you could include: How many students are they currently supervising? Do they have time for more students? What are their expectations of the students under their supervision? If necessary, would they be able to fund you? Do they have affiliations with other institutions?

The academic journey has no guarantees, but make the most of your journey. Postgraduate studies and student-supervisor relationships can be emotionally taxing, as detailed by a previous SAYAS blog; hence it is vital to put in all this effort. Having the ‘right’ supervisor can be a catalyst to your growth in academia and having the ‘wrong’ supervisor could lead to depression. My MSc and PhD supervisor has been a mentor and advisor. In the moments where I felt so defeated and incompetent, he always knew the right things to say to keep me motivated. He has been selfless and transparent when giving advice, even if it meant losing me as a student. As a result, he connected me with multiple international collaborators which immensely advanced my research.

Another SAYAS blog likens supervisors to coffee, funny but very true. Supervisors are very different and have various supervision styles buts once you find your preferential ‘coffee’ it will be magical. It will have a lasting impact on both your academic and personal life.

Even though there are all these ingredients to finding the best supervisor, you as the student have to put in the most effort. There are no guarantees that all these steps will lead you to your ideal supervisor, but you also have to be willing to maximise your potential to gain the most from your postgraduate experience. If the relationship does get toxic, be mindful of the steps you could take to fix it or find another supervisor; hence it is important to be aware of the structures that handle these matters in your institution.

Fallacies and freedom of expression in Science

Can ignorance be cured?

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused a global panic, unfortunately, during these trying times many people have suddenly become ‘medical experts’. It was alarming for me when I received a WhatsApp text message claiming that the virus ‘can be cured by a bowl of freshly boiled garlic water’. The panic was; how many people received this message? How many people believed it? How many lives are at risk because of it?

The results of spreading fake news can be catastrophic. They could lead to deaths that could be prevented if the people received scientifically correct information. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that the vast majority of coronavirus information shared across social media comes from fake news sites. These fake news range from conspiracy theories of where the virus originated from to healing remedies. It was unsettling to see prominent leaders also prematurely announce treatments that weren’t approved by medical specialists. The repercussions of this misinformation have even sparked racial discrimination and lead to shortages of Plaquenil which is used to treat malaria.

I hope that as a community we can work together to spread the scientifically correct news and save lives! The NewsGuard has created the Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center which keeps a record of all the fake news websites. In South Africa, it is best to read updates and health-related advice directly from the government’s website (https://www.gov.za/Coronavirus).

In the age of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) people have become more susceptible to fake news. Old wives’ tales are no longer just beliefs of small groups but are vastly spread through the internet. Unfortunately, science is not exempt from fake news. An article posted by Psychology Today mentions that people fall for fake science news based on their individual ability to recognize misinformation, group beliefs, and societal factors. Addressing these individual/societal beliefs with facts doesn’t help much, research shows that evidence-based arguments are most likely to curb these beliefs. 

The most popular in Astronomy has to be the belief in astrology, even print media cashes in on this one. People strongly believe that star signs directly affect their moods, personality, finance and love life. A study carried out at the University of Arizona showed that 78% of 10000 students believe that astrology is ‘sort of science’. A shocking 48% of students from the science faculty also believed that astrology is science-based. Counter to popular belief, star signs are based on a group of stars that appear in the sky at a particular time of the year, they have no effect on any individual. They were initially used by farmers to indicate the time of the year and navigate through a season change.

Right after astrology would be the ‘flat earthers’, a group of people who choose to still base their belief on an experiment performed in 1985. What is alarming is that the number of people who believe this myth seems to be on the rise. An experiment carried out by science enthusiast clearly shows that the earth is spherical and not flat.

The above examples are less critical, however, results of believing fake science news can be life-threatening.  For example, a study carried out in the US showed that a third of the public disagrees that climate change is due to human behaviour. These individuals would be less likely to be more precautious when using objects that cause pollution or directly impact climate change. The truth is, we only have ~ 10 years to curb the climate change catastrophe, this can only be achievable if we work in unity. It is promising to see young individuals boldly advocating for this cause because it is the younger generation that will suffer the consequences of our ignorance.

Another hazardous myth is that vaccines are harmful to babies. This myth stemmed from a fake study that linked autism to the measles‐mumps‐rubella (MMR) vaccine.  This hesitancy to vaccinate has caused a global increase in vaccine-preventable diseases and sometimes result in fatalities that could have been prevented. The truth is research has shown that vaccines save lives! They do not just protect the vaccinated individual but also provide community protection by reducing the spread of disease within a population.

It is promising to see that as much as 4IR might be the cause of the acceleration of the spread of fake news, it can also be the solution. A lot of research has gone into using machine learning and artificial intelligence as a resolution. These 4IR tools can be used to detect fake news based on text. Other studies include adding warning texts to articles that emanate from untrusted websites, these studies reveal that people are less likely to believe articles that are tagged as fake.

As scientists, I feel that it is our duty to educate the public with matters that we are well informed about. Ideally, it should be mandatory for all science postgraduate students to be enrolled for a science communication module. This would enable us to effectively communicate our science with a range of audiences. Hence, allowing us to engage with the public at a level which is not condescending but equally informative.

Majority of postgrad funding is from the government, either directly from NRF or through SARChI chairs, hence, science communication should be a public service from the recipients of the funding. The government already has science engagement avenues such as SAASTA and could escalate public engagement by working with more postgrad students.

Finally, as scientists we should be equally visible on social media, presenting evidence-based facts to combat the spread of fake science news. If we are not thrilled to do this as a public service then let us consider it as a mission to save mankind (Science Avengers maybe?).